As I age and begin to realize my body isn’t responding the way it used to, I remember an article I read years ago. Humans tend to lose skills in the reverse order that they gain them. In other words, we usually know how to drink liquids at birth, then we learn to smile, then we’re able to sit without support, followed by reaching and grabbing, eating soft food, grasping, standing, crawling, walking, talking, bladder control, and so on down the line.
From what I’ve observed of friends and family, this generally holds true. Of course not everyone loses skills over the same time period. Some start with a slooooow decline that gains speed over the years. A good friend of mine entered the shadowy forest of Alzheimer’s, and wandering like a lost chlld, got more and more confused and incapable of making decisions. Finally, at the end, she was drooling and sitting in a wheelchair like a baby in a stroller. Not a nice experience for her or her family.
Others, like my mother, delayed the onset of miasma until 18 months before her demise. Still others, like my mother-in-law, are incapacitated by a serious disease but retain their mental faculties until near the very end.
I have learned, to my regret, that individuals don’t have much control over the process. Talk to a group of people under, say, the age of 50, and they’ll deliver mini-lectures about maintaining fitness regimes, lowering cholesterol, ordering physical tests, the value of green (or ginger or Chamomile or Peppermint or Hibiscus or Echinacea, ad nausem), and the miracles of marijuana. Even eating dirt, called geophagy, has its advocates.
With the typical American attitude that anything can be changed or improved, younger folks think the aging process can be controlled, apparently as easily as poverty or war can be wiped out. My suspicion is that people at this stage simply focus on a fitness activity to keep their minds away from the Grim Reaper at their elbows. Ooops. Wrong. I run into many on the 65+ side of the age scale who seem to believe that denial they’re old will ward off aging.
For purposes of predictions about health and physical condition, I find the good old Bell Curve comes closest to explaining how humans age. At the beginning of life, we gain skills in a certain order over a period of time. At the other end, we lose skills in a certain order over a period of time.
Take balance. If you have a young child in your vicinity, you’ll note over the months that balance is continually practiced. Once he pulls himself to his feet, he takes a few shuffling steps. Then he holds out his arms to remain erect, conquers independent walking, then to running and leaping. I recently saw a small child using a heavy rock in each fist to help her maintain balance.
Watch an aging adult. You’ll see the same process in reverse. Within the last several years, I’ve lost the ability to do decent jumping jacks. I only noticed when I failed. Most of us are familiar with the subsequent downslope. From walking, to using a cane, to hauling out the walker, finally to the wheelchair.
Other examples I’ve noticed of aging reversal includes skin. A baby’s is soft and delicate. So, too an oldster’s. Hair—a baby’s frequently is wispy and fine. An older adult’s, mine in this case, is returning to this state and even is thinning back to its original toddler’s thickness. Many of us start losing our patience, our ability to delay gratification, our desire to try certain foods (think of toddlers who refuse veggies). As children, we gained height. As seniors we lose inches. And don’t even talk about teeth!
When it comes to higher faculties, a sizeable percentage of the elderly regress in this area, too. When someone complains to me that her aging parent won’t accept reasonable explanations for lost items or missing medications, but instead accuse those around them of theft or abuse, I point out that the older parent is now mentally at the stage of a two-year-old, having regressed on the downslope. No one can reason with a two-year-old, so don’t expect to be able to do it with a 92-year-old.
A caveat: the slope of both the up and down sides of a bell curve may be extended or compressed. The angle of the curve differs for each person. Getting old is just as challenging a process as growing up. No matter where you are on the age spectrum, understanding the Bell Curve of aging may help you tolerate yourself and others.